A Woman Under the Influence

United States, 1974

Directed by John Cassavetes

With Gena Rowlands (Mabel Longhetti), Peter Falk (Nick Longhetti), Matthew Cassel (Tony Longhetti), Matthew Labyorteaux (Angelo Longhetti), Christina Grisanti (Maria Longhetti), Eddie Shaw (Dr. Zepp)

In his previous films, alcohol was poured liberally, to say the least, a kind of fuel sustaining the antics, the wanderings, the despair too of his characters, whether they were the young Black and White artists of “Shadows” (1958) struggling to get satisfaction, the lovers of “Faces” (1968) craving so much for love and respect, the friends of “Husbands” (1970) drifting away from families, realities, grief, all those people enjoying goofing around – actually, it looks sometimes as if it were their only purpose.

With its title and those initial shots showing a disappointed Mabel Longhetti getting drunk, first at home, and then in a bar where she is picked up by deferential but somewhat bemused fellow, the film could be an in-depth examination of intoxication in a married woman. But however useful alcohol can be to get Mabel Longhetti excited, it is not the real trouble. The testy answer of her husband Nick Longhetti makes to a few, cryptic remarks of one of his colleagues about the health of his wife hinted earlier that something deeper is at play, something that can clearly spook folks but that the hubby wants to view under control and deems acceptable: “She is not crazy, she is unusual”, he snaps.

Under pressure, lacking balance but exploding into life, not just out of despair: Gena Rowlands

Mabel is not balanced, but gets carried away readily and, as a neighbor finds out the day he brings to the Longhettis’ home his own kids for a little party, displays fairly eccentric, goofy, even disturbing behaviors, uttering remarks plainly too casual, too familiar, too silly. That easily makes others uncomfortable or angry, and certainly drives Nick mad. The few days the film chronicles in its first part, blending routine with the fancies of Mabel (like that improvised party with kids that involves dancing Pyotr Illyich Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” and putting up costumes), shot not just with the trademark jerky hand-held camera of director John Cassavetes but with steady, nicely composed and edited shots, illustrate both how much under stress Mabel is, painfully aware of her flaws and her lack of control and balance and yet hurrying to do anything, and inevitably the wrong thing, to please, to get happy, to make people around her and herself satisfied, and more that that, glad to feel alive, and how much under stress her marriage is – not just because of her over-enthusiastic, outlandish, offensive attitudes wear her husband’s nerves but because his own abrupt and nervous way to handle the love he still feels for her. Tension runs across the woman and the couple, tension defines the woman and the couple, tension is the only way to gather who are the woman and the couple.

Things slowly get out of hand: the film reaches a climax the evening following the party, with Mabel edging towards a real nervous breakdown, Nick yelling at her, and Nick’s mother bitterly complaining about her daughter-in-law. The family doctor, Dr. Zepp, arrives and the confrontation turns into a frantic pitched battle to get hold of Mabel, who is eventually committed. Nick is left alone to look after their three children, Tony, Angelo, and Martha, and to deal with the reactions of his work colleagues and the outer world.

Six months later, Nick throws a big party to celebrate the return of his wife. But he is forced to acknowledge that too many folks have been invited, and that a more quieter gathering would be better. But even the downsized reception proves a disappointment: clearly the parents of Mabel and those of Nick do not get along, the marriage has probably a romantic affair that was not kindly welcomed, Dr. Zepp looks an awkward guest, and a hypocritical one, and Nick cannot cope with the woman who stepped in his house – she is too quiet, too tamed, too different. One again, things get out of hand, Mabel looking first like a dazed and haggard stranger, then getting wild again, then fighting with Nick, who at first wanted her to be the oddball he used to know, then gets overwhelmed by her morbid fancies (she tries to cut her hand), and then frantically, hopelessly tries to reach out to her again, to show his love, to soothe her. And he pulls it off.

Those final shots, taken by a camera which has stopped roving around the characters or trailing them, but instead stays put in another room, just peeking at the couple partly obscured by the curtains of partition French doors – afar, witnessing a recovered intimacy. The film has been a deep, disturbing dive into the intimate life of a couple badly strained by the lack of sanity of the wife and the lack of tranquility of the husband, a marriage put under siege by a madness turning the hyper-sensitive, hyper-generous woman into a hapless loose cannon fraying the nerves of those around, creating malaise, courting disaster. No diagnosis is articulated, no judgment really passed: Mabel is indeed unusual, but the film steers clear of any pretense to analysis and of any emotional viewpoint about her mind and her antics – though the picture of the hypothetically recovering patient in the long final part feels like a scathing indictment of the therapeutic methods that were still in the early 1970s so highly regarded and widely used. For a cineaste conspicuously concerned with the energy, the impulse, and the tension of the characters, with the rawness of everything that a human can experience, it is the pain of Mabel’s unbridled, off-kilter self, but also her dignity, and the impact she has that mattered in devising and shooting this portrait. She meets constantly an eye eager to observe her, to understand her, to convey her existence.

“A Woman Under the Influence” is also the story of a husband amazingly, movingly in love with her, despite everything, the tale of an ordinary, hard-working working-class worker coping with terrible psychological and medical demands – the film, by the way, spends a lot of time with Nick and his teammates, standing also as a detailed, vivid, truly sympathetic depiction of the drudgery, the difficulty, the drain construction work involves (these workers are on a municipality’s payroll, used at any time for varied tasks, like repairing broken pipes under a street by night). Nick’s experience is exhausting, testing his short temper and his strong commitment to Mabel, and the camera intensely, even brutally and shockingly, exposes the tension running day and night, one incident at a time, through him – it is challenging and riveting, puzzling and awesome to watch. Most of the Cassavetes oeuvre focuses on the struggle to love and get loved, the pressing but complex task of talking to each other, sharing sentiments, getting together: in this film, the director investigates what is a borderline case, a situation where the unbalance of one partner’s mind redefines the parameters, with love becoming a misguided stream making the conversation so hard and the communication so trying – the film’s climax, as a peeved and panicked Mabel attempts to keep the doctor and his syringe at bay and to get heard and respected by an angry husband and an aggressive mother-in-law, conveys that struggle in a most harrowing and striking manner. The final shots look like a happy ending made on these troubled terms: love can get over the difficulties, the couple can eventually find a precarious but real way to get along, once again, and perhaps even in a lasting manner.

It should be added it is a family story: the three children of the Longhettis play an important role in understanding who Mabel is and are also carried along the love stream running through the adults. Tony, Angelo, and Maria are aware their mother is “unusual” but they accept it and still love her. This love proves to be a necessity for the couple to exist: once Mabel is committed, Nick must fend for himself and learn to look after the kids and to spend time with them but a desultory and bleak afternoon on the beach is enough to emphasize how bad he is as a father, struggling to please his children and to make them appreciate his efforts. When, in the final part, Nick tries to make Mabel, once again behaving like an oddball cut off from the world, to step down from the couch where she is dancing, and clearly looks like he is ready to hit her, the children rush to stall him as he walks, to push him back as much as they can: they want to protect the mother even as she seems to lapse back into insanity. Mabel, despite her flaws, still represents the energy and the beauty of maternal love, and this love helps a lot her story to avoid tragedy but instead to celebrate the connections and sentiments that can make lovers happy, families united, life sustainable, if not great.

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